The trial for the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged co-conspirators has resumed at Guantanamo Bay, just days before the 20th anniversary of America’s darkest day.
Mohammed, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi smiled and chatted to each other as they appeared in court Tuesday on charges of plotting and executing the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people.
All five suspects face the death penalty if convicted of capital charges which include: terrorism; hijacking aircraft; conspiracy; murder in violation of the law of war; attacking civilians; attacking civilian objects; intentionally causing serious bodily injury; and destruction of property in violation of the law of war.
It marks the first time the five suspects have appeared for the military tribunal since early 2019 following numerous delays in the pursuit of justice – most recently caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The timing is especially poignant with Saturday marking 20 years to the day that al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airplanes and carried out coordinated attacks across the US.
Two of the planes were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The anniversary comes just weeks on from the US’s chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan last month which saw the Taliban regain control of the country and 13 American troops killed in a suicide attack in Kabul.
President Joe Biden also signed an executive order Friday ordering a review of the classified documents related to the 9/11 terror attacks after victims’ family members and survivors told him to stay away from the anniversary events unless he declassified documents potentially showing Saudi government ties to the hijackers.
The trial for the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (pictured) and four other alleged co-conspirators resumed today at Guantanamo Bay
Ramzi Bin al-Shibh (left) and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali (right) are both accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks
Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin ‘Attash (left) is accused of training the hijackers to fight, while Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi, now 53, from Saudi Arabia, is accused of giving financial backing to the group
The pre-trial hearings are taking place at the Expeditionary Legal Complex (ELC) at Camp Justice, an ultra-secure military commissions courtroom surrounded by fences of razor wire which was specifically built for the trial of 9/11 suspects.
They will run from Tuesday through Friday, before resuming Monday through September 17.
Additional pretrial hearings are then expected to be held in November, followed by jury selection of 12 military officers in 2022 at the soonest.
Tuesday’s proceedings were attended by a group of reporters, victims’ family members and survivors.
The five suspects each entered the courtroom one by one, accompanied by military escorts, and sat at separate tables with their defense teams.
Mohammed, who allegedly came up with the idea for the attacks and took it al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, strode easily into the courtroom at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Tuesday morning sporting a dense, graying red beard, blue turban and matching face mask.
He chatted animatedly with bin Attash while leafing through a pile of documents.
Bin Attash, who allegedly helped plan the 9/11 attacks, wore a pink keffiyeh headdress and a military desert camouflage jacket, walking slowly with a prosthetic on one leg he lost in a firefight in Afghanistan in 1996.
Al-Shibh, a member of the ‘Hamburg Cell’ of hijackers, also wore desert camouflage over his white cotton pants, seemingly to reflect his days as an al-Qaeda jihadist.
Ali, the nephew of Mohammed also known as Ammar al-Baluchi, revealed a short, black beard under his mask and wore a Sindhi cap of his native Balochistan, along with a traditional vest over his white robe.
Hawsawi entered in a Saudi thobe-style white robe and carrying a pillow which he placed on the hospital chair reserved for him, due to rectal damage his lawyers say was incurred in the abusive interrogations by the CIA.
Air Force Colonel Matthew McCall is presiding over the five suspects’ pre-trial hearings.
He is the eighth military judge to sit on the case and the fourth during the pretrial proceedings.
The hearing opened with the judge asking each of the defendants if they understood the guidelines for the hearing.
Each answered yes, some in English and some in their own languages.
McCall then spoke about COVID-19 protocols for the hearing, saying everyone should wear a mask unless addressing the court.
Defense attorneys said they were eager to continue where they stopped in February 2019, building a case to discredit the bulk of the prosecution’s evidence due to the torture they endured by the CIA.
The September 11 2001 terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people including 2,753 people in New York
Proceedings then began with an initial hearing focused on the judge’s own qualifications to hear the case.
Lawyers for both sides are allowed in a war crimes tribunal to question a new judge for possible bias.
McCall said he had worked with others on both sides of the court in this case, but had no deep links or commitments to any.
‘I shut down all my social media,’ he said, to avoid potential ‘friends’ from contacting him about the case.
McCall adjourned the session after just two and a half hours over procedural issues related to his appointment.
It is expected to resume Wednesday, though arguments over substantive evidence issues might not resume until next week.
Much of the rest of the week will involve closed, classified meetings attended only by the judge, defense and prosecution – and not the defendants.
It is unclear how much of the hearings the public will learn due to concerns around classified information and national security.
No recordings are permitted and no video or audio will be released to the public.
However an unofficial courtroom transcript will be released around one day later and a sketch artist will be present.
The trial is also being streamed to the public at Fort Meade, Maryland.
The 9/11 attacks, carried out almost 20 years ago, killed almost 3,000 people
Much of the pre-trial hearings will focus around what evidence will be admissible at trial, as the defense has argued information was gathered under torture.
The five suspects will each have their own defense team of attorneys assigned by the military, as well as pro-bono lawyers from the private sector and non-governmental organizations.
They will sit separately at five tables with their legal teams and interpreters and may be restrained with their ankles shackled to the floor, if the judge deems necessary, reported ABC News which toured the facility Sunday.
The alleged main plotter Mohammed will sit at the front table, with the other four sat in order of the indictment.
Four of the five accepted an offer to get the COVID-19 vaccine, reported ABC.
During recesses in the pre-trial proceedings, the five suspects will be held in five separate holding cells by the courtroom.
The cells are numbered ELC14 through ELC18.
Each cell has a toilet, a Qibla pointer pointing to Islam’s holiest site, and a mounted bed with a foam cushion on a mattress – but no sheets due to suicide risks.
The hearings will take place at the Expeditionary Legal Complex (ELC) at Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. The base pictured above
The suspects will be woken from their cells at the Joint Task Force where they are being held around 5am each day to be taken to the holding cells for around 6.30am.
There is also a larger holding cell for the defendants to have meetings with their legal teams and a building with a shower.
Family members of some of the 2,977 people the five are accused of murdering and survivors of the terrorist attacks will watch the hearings from a sound-proof gallery, with a curtain separating them from the press.
The five suspects have been locked up at the ‘War on Terror’ prison at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for nearly 15 years.
They were first indicted in 2012.
Since the case started, prosecutors have regarded it as open-and-shut, even without the tainted information reaped from the brutal CIA interrogations.
Instead, prosecutors maintain that the defendants all provided solid evidence of conspiring in the 9/11 attacks during so-called ‘clean-team’ interrogations conducted by the FBI in 2007, after the five arrived at Guantanamo.
But the defense has sought to disqualify most of the government’s evidence saying it is tainted by the alleged torture the defendants underwent in CIA custody.
The defense and human rights organizations argue that the defendants were interrogated under torture while they were held at the CIA’s secret ‘black sites’ between 2002 and 2006.
The attorneys also argue that the 2007 interrogations were hardly ‘clean’ because the FBI also took part in the CIA’s torture program, and their interrogations carried a similar menace.
The defendants, still feeling the impact of torture at that time, spoke to the FBI under the real fear that it would start again, the defense contends.
‘Make no mistake, covering up torture is the reason that these men were brought to Guantanamo’ instead of the US federal justice system, said Connell, who represents Baluchi.
Court sketch of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (right) and co-defendant Walid bin Attash at a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay in 2012
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, is one of five Guantanamo Bay detainees whose pre-trial hearings will resume on Tuesday
‘The cover-up of torture is also the reason that we are all gathered at Guantanamo for the 42nd hearing in the 9/11 military commission,’ he said.
Attorneys say the five defendants now suffer the lasting effects of this severe torture.
Added to that, the attorneys say, is the cumulative impact of 15 years in harsh, isolated conditions since arriving at Guantanamo Bay.
To prove their case, the defense is demanding huge amounts of classified materials that the government is resisting turning over, on everything from the original torture program to conditions at Guantanamo to health assessments.
Defense lawyers also want to interview dozens more witnesses, after 12 already appeared before the court, including two men who oversaw the CIA program.
The demands have delayed the trial, but the defense blames the government for actively hiding materials relevant to the case.
Alka Pradhan, another defense attorney, noted that it took the government six years to admit that the FBI took part in the CIA’s torture program.
‘This case wears you down,’ she said.
‘They are withholding things that are normal procedure in court.’
With scores of motions lined up to demand evidence that military prosecutors refuse to hand over, defense attorneys said the pretrial phase could easily last another year, placing far over the horizon any hope for a jury trial and verdict.
Asked if the case could ever reach that point, one defense attorney, James Connell, replied ‘I don’t know.’
Smoke billows out of the Twin Towers after terrorists flew two airplanes into the buildings on September 11 2001
Mohammed, now 57 and known as KSM, was described in the 9/11 Commission report as the ‘principal architect’ of the terrorist attacks.
Born in Kuwait, of Pakistani origin, KSM studied in the US before fighting in Afghanistan. He is believed to be the one who took the idea for the September 11 attacks to Osama Bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader.
He was arrested in 2003 and taken to a secret CIA ‘black ops’ site, where he was waterboarded at least 183 times. He was forced to remove all his clothes for lengthy periods of time, subjected to rectal rehydration and put in stress positions, plus forced to endure sleep deprivation. Much of what he ‘confessed’ was later found to be made up.
In 2006 he arrived at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Attash, from Yemen, is now 43.
He is accused of training two of the hijackers in fighting techniques.
Al-Shibh, another Yemeni, now 49, is accused of supporting the so-called Hamburg cell, relaying money and messages to the 9/11 hijackers.
He shared an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with hijacker Mohammad Atta and applied to receive flight training in the United States. After repeatedly being denied a US visa, al-Shibh allegedly wired funds to plotters already inside the US.
After he was captured in Pakistan in 2002, Bin al Shibh was held for four years at a CIA ‘black site,’ before being moved to Guantanamo Bay.
Biden has vowed to close Guantanamo Bay by the end of his first term as president.